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The cinema house has been a fixture of Commercial Drive for decades, but is now facing the threat of development

Corinne Lea, owner and manager of the Rio Theatre, says a community-funded model may work for the venue.

Film critic Dorothy Woodend moved to Vancouver in 1986, when the city boasted a movie theatre at nearly every major intersection. The Capitol 6 was still around then, she recalls, as was Royal Centre Cinemas, a "weird coven" comprising a dozen mini-theatres packed into one labyrinthine building. She rattles off a list of double bills at the Van East Cinema, which Ms. Woodend characterizes as the beating heart of it all.

"They were such seminal experiences," she says with a sigh, lamenting both the films and the iconic theatres that housed them.

But 30 years later, they've nearly all vanished.

One of the rare exceptions has been the Rio Theatre, a single-screen operation located on the corner of Broadway and Commercial Drive on the city's east side, whose motto is "An experience you can't download." The Rio has created a loyal following through a mix of independent films, midnight screenings of cult classics and live performances of comedy, music and burlesque.

But the Rio is now threatened by potential development after the building's owners put it up for sale. The news prompted a petition that quickly gathered more than 20,000 signatures and support from stars such as filmmaker Kevin Smith, while the Rio's owner and manager, Corinne Lea, scrambled to put together an offer to buy the building herself.

The landlord accepted the purchase offer last week, and Ms. Lea was given 60 days to raise the money. The property's price tag exceeds $4.3-million.

Crowds gather for the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival at the Rio Theatre on Feb. 10, 2018.

"It's a little bit of a 'be careful what you wish for, because now you've got it' scenario," Ms. Lea said.

"I can't do it by myself."

Ms. Lea plans to rally the Rio's fans and crowdfund the cost of the building.

But she says she wouldn't feel right asking for financial help without offering something in return. She plans to meet with business consultants in coming days to determine a way for locals to own a piece of the Rio themselves. A co-op model, which Ms. Lea wants to pursue, would diverge from the typical for-profit and non-profit dichotomy in the theatre world.

Running a cinema co-operatively worked in Wolfville, N.S., when, in the early 2000s, efforts to save the local theatre resulted in the creation of a community-funded venue, the Acadia Cinema Co-op. Ms. Lea thinks the same model could work on Commercial Drive.

"The community is our partner," she said.

The Rio has created a loyal following through a mix of independent films and midnight screenings of cult classics.

Independent theatres have been struggling across the country. Ms. Lea says among the challenges they face are the conditions imposed by film distributors, which often demand that theatres screen a movie for a minimum time period. Three weeks is the norm, she says – a condition that small cinemas have difficulty meeting. Stiffer showing conditions, plus the arrival of video on demand, have meant sweeping closures across the country, from Calgary's Uptown Stage and Screen to The Oxford in Halifax. Vancouver itself recently lost the Ridge and Varsity theatres to condos.

Some movie theatres have found enterprising ways to survive, such as the Royal Cinema in Toronto, which rents out the space to a post-production company during the day.

But "the ones that do survive, survive by the skin of their teeth," said civic historian John Atkin, a Vancouver-area heritage consultant. He points to city-sanctioned intensification as the culprit for the slow death of Vancouver's once-thriving cinema scene, which for decades was defined by places such as the Rio.

Sadie Vandnais works the popcorn machine at the Rio Theatre.

The Rio building itself, despite the theatre's reputation as a cultural mainstay, isn't protected by heritage status. Rezoning in 2016 left it vulnerable to development, although the city said those changes "provided opportunities" to include a theatre of some kind in any new construction.

That provision hasn't allayed the concerns of the Rio's supporters. If the Rio manages to secure its building, it could thrive, Ms. Lea says. In contrast to the endangered-species narrative so typical of the industry, she says the Rio smashed income records this January, a result of its diverse roster.

The Rio acquired a liquor licence several years ago, which Ms. Lea suggests made all the difference as the theatre branched out as an entertainment venue.

She's surprised more cinemas don't employ the same strategy; the movies-only model just "no longer worked," she said.

Ms. Woodend, the film critic, is optimistic – in part because of how fans connect with the Rio.

"People have rallied so profoundly around the Rio," she said, adding that a sense of collective ownership over the east end's last remaining community cinema might have something to do with the public outcry.

"I think that's why people are willing to pony up."

Malcolm Dow works in the projection room with modern and vintage equipment.

Ms. Woodend points to the long-standing campaign to save another historic theatre across town on Vancouver's west side, the Hollywood Theatre.

The Hollywood, which also opened in the 1930s, shut down in 2011 and operated as a church for several years. It faced redevelopment in 2013 but the city intervened to save it. Now, a group has formed to revive the Hollywood and turn it into a cultural space.

Both campaigns, said Ms. Woodend, are testament to the film community's priorities.

"People are still fighting," she said. "That spirit hasn't died yet."

Posters of upcoming shows are seen in the foyer of the Rio.

History of the Rio

The Rio Theatre has been a fixture along Vancouver's Commercial Drive for decades. Here's a brief history:

1938: Film culture takes off, and the Rio Theatre opens as a movie house with a grand architectural style.

1940s to 50s: The Rio changes hands multiple times, but continues to thrive as Hollywood grows in popularity.

1960s to mid-70s: The era sees a glut of local theatres, and with the advent of television a new owner turns part of the Rio into a bowling alley.

Mid-1970s to early 80s: Curtains close to the public and the Rio's stage and bowling lanes lie dormant.

Mid-1980s to 90s: A new owner rebrands the Rio as an Asian-languages cinema called the Golden Princess.

2005: The Rio gets a makeover, but can't draw crowds to the revived English-language cinema.

2008: The current operators take over the Rio with help from investors, diversifying revenue streams with live acts, from comedy to burlesque.

2013: Business flounders, but with the help of a liquor licence and mortgage backers, the Rio survives.

2017: The property's owners put the home of the Rio on the market after rezoning allows condo development.

Feb. 7, 2018: Following community outrage, the Rio's operators make an offer on the building to save it from destruction. They have 60 days to find the funds.

Corinne Lea